The dust is settling from the Patriots approach to the 2023 NFL Draft, where they surprisingly selected 12 players in the three-day event.
Although it's fun to assign grades and have knee-jerk reactions, the rookie class is what it is. I have critiques, like failing to address offensive tackle and tight end and opting to prioritize backup interior offensive linemen and specialists on day three.
We can have our second guesses. However, it's time to turn the page and see what these rookies can do once we get between the lines this spring and summer. And we'll be out there for it all.
My last takeaway from this draft is reading tea leaves about how some of their draft selections impact the 2020 rookie class, who are set to be free agents in the 2024 offseason.
The Patriots hit a bumpy in the road for a period of time in terms of production from draft selections that significantly hurt the roster talent. Even ownership pointed to the lackluster drafting as a needed area for improvement.
"The teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good," owner Robert Kraft said back in 2021. "I don't feel like we've done the greatest job the last few years, and I really hope and believe I've seen a different approach this year."
To the Patriots credit, the last few drafts have been better, starting with the 2020 class. Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, and Mike Onwenu are three impact players from that class, and as we mentioned, they're heading for unrestricted free agency.
Many read the selections of defensive end Keion White, hybrid linebacker Marte Mapu, and three interior offensive linemen early on day three as foreshadowing that the team won't retain their "hits" from the 2020 rookie class. However, I don't entirely see it that way, nor should it be that way.
For starters, the Patriots should be flushed with a projected $100-plus million in cap space next spring, per OverTheCap. After struggling to draft for multiple years, why not pay the class that started to turn it around? You need a core group, and they have so much cap room because they don't have very many high-priced players under contract.
Furthermore, I hope Mapu and White are here to supplement what they have and not replace key pieces. White plays a totally different role than Uche as a 285-pound five-technique defensive end who can reduce inside on passing downs, not a standup edge rusher.
As for Mapu, he has enough ability to convert speed to power for him to add some mass to his 6-3 frame and remain in the box as a traditional linebacker. The Pats have desperately needed a modern inside' backer with playmaking explosiveness to track down ball carriers and plus-coverage skills.
Mapu uses his closing burst as an impact hitter in the box, like when he took on the fullback to blow up lead zone at Senior Bowl practice. He's not that far off from Matt Milano or Deion Jones's body type, either. This new-age linebacker gives the Pats legit athleticism and range playing alongside Dugger rather than replacing him as a hybrid safety after this season. It would be great to see the Patriots adapt with this pick.
At guard, there are more projected one-for-one swaps for Onwenu. But, hopefully, the team agrees that Mapu and White are different than their 2020 predecessors, or at least complimentary players.
The Patriots shouldn't be planning for the future but instead building for the future. Along with first-rounder Christian Gonzalez, they have an opportunity to build something special on defense.
Let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag after another eventual NFL Draft:
Q: Do you believe after all the interior offensive line picks on day three of the draft that it's possible for Mike Onwenu to move to right tackle? - Humberto Cavazos
Despite the mid-round picks on the interior O-Line, I hope that's not the plan with Onwenu. As Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh said, Onwenu has "settled in at guard," which I believe is his best position on the line. First, there's something to be said for allowing Onwenu to stick at one position in his development. Continuing to toy with one of your most consistent players is asking for trouble. Second, even though the blocking metrics and PFF grades were good at tackle, Onwenu's film at right tackle has limitations. His power, footwork, and ability to leverage blocks are best suited for guard. Plus, there were instances where the Patriots protected or schemed around his limited range at RT. Onwneu is a good lineman, meaning he can be good anywhere. But my guess is the limitations would show eventually if he moved to tackle full-time.
Q: As of this moment, what do you believe will be the starting five on the offensive line? - ConScience
My best guess right now for Week 1: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Mike Onwenu, and RT Riley Reiff. The wildcard is Calvin Anderson. Although his technique and balance in pass protection are inconsistent, Anderson is a terrific athlete with the explosiveness and fluidity to play left tackle. Anderson has significant upside, assuming that Adrian Klemm can coach him up, making their most dynamic offensive line combination: LT Calvin Anderson, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Mike Onwenu, and RT Trent Brown. I could see the Pats preferring the higher floor player in Reiff to start, but if Anderson has a good camp, the second combination is more intriguing on paper.
Q: Do you buy the team's explanation about missing out on the tight end position? The Pats had so much draft capital, and they could not package something for a tight end in round two? - Ken K
Let's break down the two opportunities the Patriots had to draft a tight end on day two. According to ESPN's Mike Reiss, second-round pick Keion White was on a short list of players for the Patriots in the first round, and they even discussed trading up from No. 46 for White. Although I'm not as high on him as them, they love the player, and my guess is they didn't think twice about taking him over a tight end like Schoonmaker, Strange, or Kraft at 46 (and weren't trading up for a tight end, per the report).
Groh then said there were a few day-two tight ends the Patriots had on their board, but they went quickly, so we can assume those were: Mayer, LaPorta, Musgrave, Schoonmaker, and Strange. It's clear that, in the third round, Tucker Kraft and Darnell Washington weren't on their board, especially since reports indicate they tried trading back before they took Mapu, realizing it was a little early for the guys they liked. The second guess will be Kraft, who had Pats connections with Alabama attempting to recruit him with a NIL deal and taking Pierre Strong from South Dakota State a year earlier, and Washington. My guess is Kraft would've been an option in the fourth round, while Washington's knee injury might've been a day-three flier like Kayshon Boutte in their eyes. Only time will tell if they were correct in that thinking, but it's worth wondering how their TE board was stacked and if they'll regret passing on Kraft and Washington.
Q: After listening to his many press conferences, I was taken aback by just how much Christian Gonzalez reminds me of Stephon Gilmore. Are their playing styles similar, too? - Marc Saez
My first impression of Gonzalez at the combine back in February was similar. He does sound like Stephon Gilmore. Believe it or not, that turned some teams off in the first round, thinking that Gonzalez doesn't have the killer instinct to be an elite corner. I didn't get that impression speaking to him during our Patriots Unfiltered interview on Friday. Instead, I read it like Gilmore, with quiet confidence. As for their playing styles, there are parallels with how they move on film. Gonzalez's foot quickness and hip fluidity to stay glued to receivers throughout the route are Gilmore-like. At this stage, I'd say Gonzalez has more ball-hawking traits in zone than Gilmore, with maybe a little less physicality at the catch point in man. Gonzalez said he models his game after Broncos corner Patrick Surtain, my pro comparison for the Pats first-rounder before the draft. But you see some similarities between the Pats rookie and Gilmore, too.
Q: Assuming Boutte and Douglas make the 53, how do they fit with JSS? Are they all slot guys? Hard to imagine six WRs on the 53 with Gesicki essentially a big WR. - Andrew DeSilva
Looking back on the last few years, the Patriots have typically carried five wide receivers on the initial 53-man roster (not including Matthew Slater). That could be an indictment on their depth at the position, but they don't usually keep six. Although they are built differently, I see some route overlap between Boutte and Smith-Schuster. Both guys are power receivers with great YAC ability, but Boutte is more explosive (when healthy), and JSS has better ball skills. Both can play inside or outside in this offense, but skinny posts, digs, crossers, and occasional whip routes are their best routes. Douglas is a different bread. He's likely a slot-only receiver that is a burner in a similar mold to Zay Flowers. Unless he breaks out in camp, my guess is the team will view Douglas as an "F" slot in three-receiver sets, while Boutte can play either the X or Z in a more starting role. Douglas brings a different skill set than their other receivers, which could give him a leg up, but Boutte is a complete prospect. I will also say this about Boutte: you want him engaged. He's not the type of guy you carry on the practice squad. You need him to be locked in. It's either boom or bust.
Q: Do any available UFAs look more attractive to you once the impact of compensatory picks is removed? - G Francis
The three positions to watch are offensive tackle, tight end, and running back. The Pats will likely bring in another veteran running back after they didn't draft one, Leonard Fournette, who they've shown interest in before or a more versatile player like a Kenyan Drake or Rex Burkhead reunion. They pointed to liking their depth at OT, so they may be rolling with this group, but Donovan Smith might be worth a look. Ryan Griffin has a connection to Bill O'Brien at tight end from Houston.
Q: Who was your favorite draft pick in this year's draft for the Patriots? - Leion Kamitsis
The obvious answer is Gonzalez, but I will go in a different direction. I really love taking a flier on Boutte. He's the exact kind of receiver pick they should've made on day three. If you're buying a lottery ticket, buy one for the mega millions. I'm also intrigued by Mapu. If they play him at linebacker, he could be a real asset. Get the 260-pound thumpers off the field against these modern offenses.
Q: Any thoughts on the Pats revisiting the possibility of incremental upgrades at WR with veterans from other teams? - Stephen B
I know we are all holding out hope that the Patriots will make a bigger splash at wide receiver. But, for better or worse, I don't see it happening right now. Mainly, because the trade market isn't active, with DeAndre Hopkins and Jerry Jeudy still on their respective teams after the draft. My guess is they'll roll with what they have until at least the trade deadline in November. Let's see what JuJu brings, hope that Tyquan Thornton can make a year-two leap, and maybe they struck gold with the late-round fliers on Boutte and Douglas. If not, they'll rethink things at a later date.